Will next week’s elections help the pro-life cause? An interview with insider Charmaine Yoest.
Fresh out of college, Charmaine Yoest “fell in love with D.C. and the political process” as she sought to “make a difference in the political arena concerning life-and-family issues.”
Her first job landed her in the Reagan administration, where she began a career addressing these vital issues in a variety of political, nonprofit and academic capacities.
In 2004, she became president and CEO of Americans United for Life (AUL), the first national pro-life organization. AUL’s legal strategists have been involved in every pro-life case before the Supreme Court since Roe v. Wade, and they seek to influence pro-life legislation at all levels of government. A mother of five who put her career on hold for several years to be a full-time mom, Yoest took time out of her busy Washington schedule to update Register readers about pro-life issues, especially in light of next week’s midterm elections.
Nearly four decades after Roe v. Wade many pro-lifers are losing heart. Should they be?
Definitely not. You see the science moving in our direction [proving the humanity of the unborn], the poll data continues to show decreasing public support for abortion, and we continue to win battles, especially at the state level. The outcry sweeping the country against this new regime of taxpayer- funded abortion [vis-à-vis the new federal health-care law] should also be encouraging.
And we need to remember that we still live in a republic where people have the ability to have their voices heard. To that end, AUL recently launched the “Life Counts” campaign, which is another opportunity for people to show where they stand. We’re hoping everybody can get one of our bumper stickers that simply announce “I’m voting for life.” Wouldn’t that be a great thing to see everywhere?
It’s all about creating a buzz around this election that life is a key issue. It’s not just about the midterms, however. We’ve got another big election in 2012, where the most pro-abortion president in history plans to run again. Americans have got to start saying right now that we’re voting for life because life counts. To join our campaign, I invite your readers to learn more at AULAction.org.
What are AUL’s action points on reversing Roe?
First, we have got to focus on saving babies now. Second, we prepare for the day after Roe, which will mean legal battles in all 50 states. And we continue striving to make Roe obsolete in the legal arena and public opinion, in part by bringing to bear the sociological and medical costs of abortion to women. Regarding point No. 1, we’re absolutely encouraged to know that by passing parental-notification laws we’re making a difference now. Passing laws that limit abortion saves babies, and we know this by abortion rates going down in states after they’ve passed good legislation.
What is one way that the AUL is changing the public perception of abortion?
Well, I’m very proud AUL helped establish the intellectual framework for the fetal-homicide laws adopted in many states. Why? Because the more we are able to protect the unborn in every case but abortion, the more we show the absurdity of how the law functions in relation to abortion. Even my 9-year-old daughter gets the absurdity of calling one case murder and another a medical procedure.
We must remember that abortion policy in this country is anything but settled law. It’s a very divisive issue. We just finished our 2010 review of state legislative sessions, and there’s tremendous activity in the states to increase abortion regulation.
Are there any particular initiatives AUL is undertaking to influence the outcome of next week’s congressional elections?
One of the things we’ve really worked on the last two years has been building a nationwide network to inform people at the grassroots level about what politicians are up to, especially through our e-mail list. As for this election, our sister organization, AUL Action, launched a $600,000 campaign to take to task 12 supposedly pro-life Democrats who voted for the health-care bill, which is the largest expansion of abortion since Roe v. Wade.
How does having a Ph.D. in politics and government experience position you to confront pro-life issues?
I think my professional and educational background gives me a unique perspective and experience that’s really helpful. My professional career has been rooted in the political process — experience in the White House, campaigns, academia, the nonprofit sector — so I know the political process from all directions and have lots of relationships in Washington to help us make a difference. And because AUL is the oldest politically oriented organization and the legal arm of the pro-life movement, we’ve developed real credibility on constitutional issues related to life.
So, AUL is an arm of the movement, but not the body?
Of course. But the entire body needs to work together. We at AUL also work very collaboratively with other arms of the pro-life movement, such as crisis-pregnancy centers. The bottom line is that we all have a role to play — all of us, wherever we find ourselves. We need people in the communities taking a stand for life. Women have an especially big role to play because the women’s movement — the feminist movement — defines abortion as the women’s issue. So more women need to speak out, whether at the Girl Scout troop, local school board, elected office. There are as many ways to make a difference as there are unique women with unique gifts, talents and abilities.
How does the women’s movement make abortion the defining issue for this constituency they claim to speak for?
Consider what Gloria Steinem once said: “I could not see any way I could possibly give birth to someone else and also give birth to myself.” I think this statement poignantly highlights the falsehood undergirding the feminist movement. That one of its most well-known leaders has this kind of personal philosophy that undermines the importance of motherhood is pretty striking.
We need to understand what we’re up against, and today the feminist movement is really focused on promoting abortion as an essential backbone of women’s empowerment: that without abortion women won’t be able to achieve full equality with men and maintain their status in society.
And yet the feminist movement seems to be acknowledging that abortion may be a choice, but not a carefree one.
Yes, what we’re seeing is that the feminist movement is coming to grips with abortion being damaging to women — traumatic and resulting in intense grief.
What does this say about the feminist movement? Are they starting to acknowledge what abortion entails — that it’s about babies?
Right now we’re seeing polling data showing that the current generation of young people is more pro-life than ever before. Why? Call it the post-sonogram generation. Young people today have sonograms of their unborn children on their fridge. It’s not just a mass of cells anymore. It’s really bottom-line scientific progress that the abortion movement has to confront.
How should the pro-life movement respond to the growing acknowledgment in the pro-abortion camp that abortion scientificmay harm mothers and that fetuses are actually unique human individuals, both of which are positions rooted in medicine and science?
The truth is the truth, and we’re very fortunate to be defending the truth about life. Even the other side is having difficulty continuing to avert its eyes from the truth about abortion. Consider this quote by Dr. George Tiller [the partial-birth abortionist who was murdered in 2009]: “Abortion is not a cerebral or a reproductive issue. Abortion is a matter of the heart. ... [U]ntil one understands the heart of a woman, nothing else about abortion makes any sense at all.”
It’s not surprising that George Tiller recognized abortion comes back to women and their experience. So I think it’s important to continue emphasizing both real-life stories about women and the research showing that abortion harms them, including increasing the risk of breast cancer. We need really consistent messaging that doesn’t let the abortion movement get away with claiming that abortion is an essential right to empower women.
You have said that the federal health-care debate had one saving grace: educating people about the extent of federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Please explain.
I think it’s absurd that we’re currently facing an economic crisis and at the same time underwriting the abortion industry with our tax dollars. Planned Parenthood is a $1 billion a year industry, and the health-care debate astonished a lot of people when it hammered in that the federal government is subsidizing it for $300 million a year. Awareness is key. Because Planned Parenthood presents itself as a defender of women’s health, it’s important people know it’s a big business and we’re all paying for it.
Every year, Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., introduces a bill to defund Planned Parenthood. Hopefully, if control of the House goes to pro-life leadership and people are further educated about the pervasiveness of abortion-industry funding, then we’ll get more traction on commonsense legislation like this. You don’t even have to be pro-life to be for this kind of fiscally commonsense legislation.
Please talk about any specific victories AUL has won at the state and federal levels — victories that might give hope for larger victories ahead.
We’re very focused on state-based legislation. And while fights on the health-care bill and Supreme Court nominations get most of the attention, there’s growing interest in the battles legislators are waging at the state level. For example, right after the health-care bill passed, we drafted and released model opt-out legislation to the states.
What’s opt-out legislation?
There’s a provision in the federal health-care bill that says states don’t have to provide for abortions in their in-state insurance exchanges. So we drafted model legislation for states to take advantage of this opt-out clause. Already it has been enacted in five: Missouri, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Not all of these states passed laws solely due to AUL, however, because some legislators introduced such legislation prior to the health-care bill having passed. But Mississippi and Missouri wouldn’t have passed it without our explicit input.
What’s the prognosis for more states opting in to opt out?
The reason it has only passed in five states this year is because most state legislative sessions run in the spring — and some, like Texas and North Dakota, only run every other year. Because the health-care bill didn’t pass till the third week in March, it was already past the time to introduce new legislation in most state legislatures.
Next year we expect a lot more states to follow. It’s all very positive. We’ve awakened a lot of people to the question of whether their own state governments will become involved in funding abortion. Because of the health-care debate, there’s a whole new interest focused upon insurance coverage generally. In short, we’re taking the fight to the states.
So, federalism isn’t dead?
Generally, 90% of pro-life legislation is happening at the state level. You don’t see nationwide informed-consent laws, for example, or ultrasound laws, parental-notification laws, informed-consent laws, fetal-pain laws [which would let women know that research indicates fetuses past 20 weeks gestation feel pain, offering women the opportunity for them to get anesthesia for the unborn if they want to go through with it], etc. Or take bills banning partial-birth abortion: The federal bill was twice vetoed by Clinton, but then some 30 states passed similar legislation. It’s a good illustration of the back-and-forth between the states and federal government.
What effect is AUL having at both levels of government?
The issue of trying to assign responsibility is amorphous. We put legislative models out there for states to adopt. Sometimes we learn after the fact that we influenced legislation, as in some of the opt-out legislation that passed this year.
We often play defense on the federal level, given who the president and the majorities in Congress are. It would be a lot better if we had a pro-life leadership in Congress and the White House, of course. We would just love to get the Hyde Amendment [a government-wide prohibition of federal funding of abortion] enshrined in law rather than having to work for its renewal on an annual basis.
What are your predictions for the November midterm elections?
Even while the Tea Party movement is gaining headlines, at the same time, there’s a real move to establish accountability for politicians who voted for the largest expansion of abortion since Roe. I think we’re seeing a real resurgence of people taking a stand in voting for life. We look forward to making more progress defending life at the federal level.
If Republicans take over one or both houses of Congress, will it make the pro-lifers’ job easier?
The important thing is for the leaders of our nation to be committed to defending life regardless of which party is in control. That’s our ultimate goal. But, currently, the congressional leadership is committed to maintaining an alliance with the abortion industry. So we’re hopeful that defenders of life will be in the majority after this election.
Matthew A. Rarey writes from Chicago.